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Janelle Schroeder / MEDILL

A few of the many prominent invasive species currently causing problems in the United States

Invasive species could cost the world trillions

by Janelle Schroeder
April 08, 2011

The recent disasters in Japan may be driving increased resolve to plan for biological invasions of species, a crisis that can be as costly as natural disasters.

Global biological invasions, including the potential carp invasion of the Great Lakes, could cost an estimated $1.4 trillion per year of damage – 5 percent of the global economy – according to an article in this month’s “BioScience.”

The report by three biologists from McGill University in Montreal contends that biological invasions may be more damaging economically than natural disasters.

“Obviously, the disaster in Japan will bring to people's attention the problem of rare extreme hazards,” said invasive species biologist Anthony Ricciardi, lead author of the report. “You never know when they are going to strike, or how costly they will be."

Their proposal is simple: because biological invasions are similar to natural disasters, they require similar management strategies that are not currently in place in any nation. This includes safety codes and standards, emergency preparedness and rapid-response measures similar to those in place for earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis.

“Our article is prompted by the burgeoning number of invasions that accrue socioeconomic costs, but that have not been met by serious concerted efforts from most nations - even though virtually every region of the planet is affected,” Ricciardi said. “Preparedness for invasions are just as important as for other natural disasters.”

“Just like with tsunami bouys, we need to have more of them out there, working continuously, and we need them spread out to watch the entire ocean,” said Christopher Jerde, an environmental biologist at University of Notre Dame.

“With invasive species in the Great Lakes, we need that same type of a philosophy and effort,” he said.

Jerde is referring to the invasive Asian carp that have slowly infiltrated the Great Lakes region after migrating up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. The Asian carp debate has spurred an immense amount of discussions, debates, and even a lawsuit.

Jerde works with the University of Notre Dame and The Nature Conservancy to test for Asian carp eDNA in the Great Lakes region. He said he believes that this genetic surveillance will help manage the implications of a potential carp invasion.

“Think of genetic surveillance like an early-warning system for a hurricane or tsunami,” Jerde said. “It tells you something is close or approaching.”

“The population hasn’t gotten to the size yet where there are fish jumping out of the river everywhere or there are noticeable changes to the environment, but there is every indication that we should be rushing to prepare.”

In light of recent natural disasters in Japan, New Zealand and Haiti, the concept of biological invasions may not seem like a major threat. But the report, appearing in the monthly journal published by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, explains how costly negligence could be.

The annual global cost of natural disasters in 2008 was $190 billion, yet the estimated combined annual cost of biological invasions in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, India and Brazil is a total of $314 billion.

The McGill biologist’s recommendations, concluded that there are several common traits between natural disasters and biological invasions.

• Invasions are extremely difficult to control.
• Invasions are difficult to predict.
• The dynamics of invasion occurrence and impact resemble though of other catastrophes

In the article, biological invasions are compared to earthquakes, which the authors say they resemble most. The timing of an invasion is almost impossible to forecast with any accuracy but that the arrival of certain invaders is predictable to some degree.

The article also states that there are management implications of biological invasions that must be understood:

• Not all introduced species are undesirable.
• The unpredictability and uncontrollability of damaging events demand planning for the worst, however.
• The socioeconomic impacts of natural disasters vary greatly depending on the preparedness of the affected region – demonstrated by the contrasting effects of earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in 2010.
• There is no federal legal capacity for rapid-response management of aquatic invasions in the United States or Canada.

Outside of the biological field, there has been little discussion regarding biological invasions and many people question why these invasions are so bad in the first place.

One major reason is cost. The socioeconomic impacts are substantial for both developed and developing nations around the globe. The emerald ash borer beetle, an invasive beetle that came from Asia, is projected to cost the United States $10 billion over the next 10 years, according to the article.